Reading Prof. Patricia Maurice's advice column titled "The Baby-Before-Tenure Question: Balancing an Academic Career With the Realities of a Biological Clock" started an interesting conversation between us. As we are both mothers who are pursuing an academic career, the "balancing" question is always present in our lives. Here are some of the thoughts we shared in discussing this neverending dilemma. Each of us payed attention to a different citation from the article from her individual background and perspective, but as you will see our conclusions are not so different from each other..
"Always remember that if you live the life you choose, whether or not it includes having children and/or fulfilling your adviser's wildest dreams, you will be happy."
Usually, when people realize that I am a mother of an already 2-year-old little girl they are quite surprised. I am still a PhD student and with that at the foot of the academic career ladder. I know only very few colleagues who also started a family during this intense and exciting time at which you start building a career in academia. Did I think about all the possible consequences for my life, my career, and my social environment before my partner and I decided to start a family? No. Would it be better if I had? I don't think so.
For me, the most important thing to face this challenge of being a mother and pursuing an academic career at the same time is the support of my network: I have an incredibly supporting partner (who is, lucky for me, not pursuing an academic career) and who bravely took over parental duties at a very early stage, allowing me to resume my work and my PhD without being out of the game for too long. On the other hand, having a very understanding boss and colleagues allowed me to be quite flexible in my working hours and to arrange my work schedule around the opening hours of child care facilities, doctoral appointments, etc. Of course it is not always as easy as it sounds now. There are and will be times when I ask myself: Why exactly did I want everything at once? But these moments pass, and having a child at this early stage of my career helped me a lot to put things into perspective and made me realize what I really need to be happy. As Prof. Patricia Maurice says in her article: "In the great ratings scheme of life, you are the only reviewer who matters."
Luckily I have never been asked by my family or friends whether I am going to quit working altogether and becoming a full-time mum. To be honest, I half expected such comments, especially because my grandparents and grandparents-in-law grew up under quite different circumstances and opportunities (or lack of such) for mothers on the job market. But me quitting and giving up my job has never seemed to be an option for them. On the contrary; my mother told me: "Now that you have born a girl it is even more important that you continue what you started. The world needs independent and self-determined women and the best way to teach them how to do that is to do it yourself and be a good example. If she has questions in the future you will be able to answer them from your own experience." Therefore, my advice to my fellow female and male graduate students and early careers is: Think about what you really want in your life, discuss it with your partner and just do it, you cannot plan everything in advance and even if you try to: It will never work out as planned! Tackle the problems when they occur, maybe the ones you thought of will not occur at all. Let me close with a statement from Prof. Patricia Maurice: "Always remember that if you live the life you choose, whether or not it includes having children and/or fulfilling your adviser's wildest dreams, you will be happy."
"Never forget that you are incredibly lucky to have been born in a place and time that allows you to pursue an education and contemplate becoming a professor with or without becoming a mother."
As a teenager, growing up in Jerusalem during the 1970's, when I went with my friends to the city center, passing by the local pharmacy I would occasionally surprise them by saying: "Let's go inside and say hello to my grandmother." There she was, standing behind the counter in her white robe, an educated pharmacist in an age when not only our grandmothers but even many of our mothers stayed home and didn't have a professional identity. My mother, with her PhD in Urban Economics and her long research and teaching career (both in academia and in government service positions), worked twice as hard to prove this idea that everything is possible. I was very fortunate be inspired by such women and I see myself obligated to also set this example to my two daughters and son, encouraging them to follow both their family and career expectations. "You will be a fourth generation of career women" I proudly tell my daughters, knowing they have already started contemplating the challenges embedded in this promise.
Personally, I had my babies first and pursued a professional management and consulting career before I was ready to return to the academia for my MA degree and now my PhD project. This of course is not the recommended path for others, but only one option that worked well for me. All I can offer from my own experience is that instead of asking yourself the grand question of "what I most want out of life?" it helps to take a more goal-oriented approach and ask- "what is the best way for me to succeed in doing what I want?" In other words, think about your motherhood and career hopes as whole rather than as one or the other. Proceed in life trying to best invest all your available resources such as time, budget, family support, and workplace flexibility, to best achieve all your different commitments. It is a dynamic process in which your resources as well as your commitments change all the time, and so do your priorities.
My advice is not to try and find a definite answer out front. Soon enough you will discover that you are not searching for the ultimate "balance" but for different balances (in plural!) that correspond to your changing situations along the way. The journey may sometimes seem too overwhelming but it sure can be exciting. For example, 10 years ago I didn't even consider including goals related to an academic career as part of my "balancing"-equation. Let me lean on Prof. Patricia Maurice's words in saying "Never forget that you are incredibly lucky to have been born in a place and time that allows you.." ? to keep your options open.